Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Stylistically, “Theater” can be confusing at first, because its points of view are fluid, changing every few paragraphs. A narrator of sorts opens the story, but this voice changes from objective reporting to speaking for the characters. John and Dorris also speak for themselves, and many of their speeches begin with their names followed by a colon, as with lines in a play. Many lines are fragmented sentences, with spaces and repetitions: “Arms of the girls, and their limbs, which . . . jazz, jazz . . . by lifting up their tight street skirts they set free . . . (Lift your skirts, Baby, and talk t papa!)” The dream passage comes in short phrases and sharp images. Clearly, Toomer is manipulating point of view and language to capture the feeling of the music, and to force the reader to surrender intellect to feeling, just as John is asked to do.

A device that ties everything together is the image of walls. The opening paragraph describes the walls of the city buildings that seem to have a life and a music of their own. The singing and shouting of jazz mixes with the “tick and trill” of the walls. During the day the walls sleep, but at night they become soaked with songs. When John walks into the theater, “they start throbbing with a subtle syncopation.”

As the pianist begins rehearsal, the walls awaken; as the men and women dance, the walls begin to sing and press inward. It is this pressing inward, toward him, that John first...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Theater Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Benson, Joseph, and Mabel Mayle Dillard. Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Byrd, Rudolph P. “Jean Toomer and the Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Was He There with Them?” In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin. New York: Garland, 1989.

Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith, eds. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Ford, Karen Jackson. Split-Gut Song: Jean Toomer and the Poetics of Modernity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Hajek, Friederike. “The Change of Literary Authority in the Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer’s Cane.” In The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, edited by Werner Sollos and Maria Diedrich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Kerman, Cynthia. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

O’Daniel, Therman B., ed. Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988.

Scruggs, Charles, and Lee VanDemarr. Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Toomer’s Cane as Narrative Sequence.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.